Silver Tongue, by Kate Blackwood

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Silver Tongue Kate Blackwood



Silver Tongue Kate Blackwood


Editor-in-Chief

Leslie Jill Patterson Fiction Editor

Katie Cortese Senior Managing Editor

Meghan E. Giles Managing Editors

Fiction Trifecta 2020

Jennifer Buentello Jacob Hall Sara Ryan

Associate Editors: TIMILEHIN ALAKE, EMMA AYLOR, CALEB BRAUN, EMMA BROUSSEAU, WILLIAM BROWN, JAY CULMONE, ANDREW GILLIS, ELIZABYTH HISCOX, MAEVE KIRK, EMERSON KURDI, MARCOS DAMIÁN, WILLIAM LITTLEJOHN-ORAM, COURTNEY LUDWICK, BROOK MCCLURG, ZACHARY OSTRAFF, CATHERINE RAGSDALE, VALERIE WAYSON, AND LAUREN WEST.

Copyright © 2020 Iron Horse Literary Review. All rights reserved. Iron Horse Literary Review is a national journal of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. IHLR publishes three print issues and three electronic issues per year, at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, through the support of the TTU President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Graduate College, College of Arts & Sciences, and English Department.


Silver Tongue


T

he service bell on the bakery counter interrupted my work. In the back room, I had been kneading a large order of Christmas Stollen—the fancy bread flecked with fruit it in and icing on top—on the floursnowed work table. I work alone Saturday mornings until Denny, the owner, comes in to run the counter. I hate the sound of that bell. As I hustled toward the swinging doors to the shop, it rang a second time. “Chill the fuck out,” I muttered to whomever it was. It was my son. He saw me, grinned, and held his stubby finger over the knob for one more hit. He’s eight and small. His chin barely clears the glass counter. His mouth is full of big, straight teeth that are waiting for the rest of him to grow into them. His long, dark eyelashes cloaked the glint in his eyes, a disguise of innocence. Just like his father’s. “Don’t you dare,” I said, grabbing his hand and giving it a little squeeze. “I heard you the first time.” “I had to make sure,” he said. “You just wanted to see me come running.” I dusted my hands on my jeans. “You’re going to miss your train, Raf. What is it?” “This is important,” he said. “Mrs. Schaffer said we have time.” Beyond the shop window, the back end of our neighbor’s ancient Lincoln idled in the slush. It was still dark out. “Okay,” I said. “But quick. Mama’s got a crapload to do, and you’ve gotta—” “I know, I know. Go see Dad.” My heart soared a short way, like a paper airplane. In this this new life of joint custody, I try to play fair, but I hoard any scrap of encouragement. I softened, two-stepped around the counter, and got down on eye level with him. “What is it, baby? What’s important?” He whispered, even though it was just us in the shop: “I want a bell for Christmas.”



I stood up. “That’s it?” “What do you mean, ‘That’s it’?” he said. He looked distressed, as though his words had a long way to go to reach me at my full height, which isn’t substantial. I’m short and, as to be expected for someone who makes cinnamon rolls and coffee cakes for a living, kind of wide across the ass. But with my son, I feel tall, even ungainly. “I thought you asked your dad for a Nintendo DSi,” I said. “I did, but I want a bell, too. I want a bell from you.” “What kind of a bell?” I couldn’t help glancing back at the service bell that plagues my early mornings. “A silver bell with a silver tongue,” he said. “You mean clapper? The thing inside?” “Yeah, that’s it. A clapper. A silver clapper.” “But why a bell, baby?” “Because it makes the nicest sound.” He said this with the same absolute assurance he uses to tell me marvelous new facts, that a triangle has three sides or that the Hudson River is full of fresh water instead of salt or that the Patriots, his dad’s team, have a chance at the Super Bowl this year. “Who told you that?” I said, coming back down to his eye level. “You did,” he said, then abruptly turned and ran, jacket flapping, toward the door. “Me? When?” “The train!” he said, mittens on the glass. “Love you” was all I could fit through the door as it closed. I watched the Lincoln’s exhaust evaporate over the empty street. Then I went back to the work room to pound the hell out of the Stollen dough. When had I told him a bell makes a nice sound? When had a bell reminded me of anything besides the fact that I was back in a service job, in the same bread shop I had worked in in high school? Without Jeremy

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to back me up, I needed something full time, and without the time to devote to Rafi (see full-time job), we had to move back to Rochester, New York, the Rust Belt city where I grew up, with my parents living two towns over. I’m the real-world parent. Rafi lives with me Monday through Friday. I get him to his new school. I repair his jeans. I make him do his homework. I dry the tears when he comes home after a fight or when he misses his old friends. Jeremy gets Rafi every other weekend. Given who Jeremy is, how much more than me he earns and what Saturdays are for, this means he is the fun parent. Rafi gets on a train before the sun rises Saturday morning and arrives in time for a second breakfast of donuts with his dad, in the sleek Syracuse neighborhood where we once lived together, the three of us. Mrs. Schaffer drives Rafi to the train station Saturday mornings while I knead dough and my parents recover from their week of teaching. The service bell rang again, up in the shop, but this time it gave me a little flash of hope. Rafi’s come back, I thought. He’s peering over the counter now, grinning, hand over the bell. He’ll say, “I want to stay,” and even though I will catch hell from Jeremy and his skinny Manhattanite mother for depriving them of their boy this last weekend before Christmas, I will have him. The day started to unfold in my mind. He would help me in the shop until I got off at noon, then we could go shopping downtown for my parents. Then sledding while Jeremy stewed about his loss in front of football on TV. I would win. It wasn’t Rafi. Mrs. Schaffer towered over the counter, clutching her faux fur coat closed at the throat. “He is on za train,” she said. Tall and broad, she came from East Germany when I was in grade school but she still speaks with a heavy accent. Assimilate already, I thought, but, looking at her, repented. She does a lot for us, and does not ask much in return. “All is well,” she said.

Kate Blackwood

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“Thank you.” “Are za Stollen ready?” “A few hours. I just set them to rise.” “Would you save one for me, please. And now, two brötchen.” I bagged two little warm rolls for her and wrote down her order: Schaffer—Stollen. When I was in high school and her husband was alive, Mrs. Schaffer would come into the bakery every morning to buy two warm brötchen for their breakfast. She and Herman lived above their junk shop, Schaffer’s Antiques, down the street. I wondered who would eat the other roll this morning. “Merry Christmas,” I said. “Ah, too early for that. Not yet. Your boy can tell you this.” She smiled. “He is counting the days.” “I’d like to think he’s counting the days until he gets to see me again,” I said.

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T

he shop got busy, and Denny, my short, balding boss, showed up to pull his weight. We scurried around, filling orders at the counter and sliding loaves into and out of the ovens. Customers were cheerful and complimented the samples I left out. It got downright festive. Needing some fresh air after a few hours, I offered to deliver Mrs. Schaffer’s order. I wrapped the heavy loaf of sweet bread, still warm and soft, in paper and walked to her shop. “Your Stollen, Mrs. Schaffer,” I handed her the package over her glass counter. “Ah, I could have picked it up, Amy,” she said. Then, quickly, “I did pay.” “You did.” “Well, thank you. Have a nice afternoon, Amy Almond.” I like it when she calls me by my full name, my old name. “Wait, I do have a question,” I said. She frowned a little. Schaffer’s Antiques was busy. Customers wound through the labyrinthine paths between cabinets and tables piled with crystal, linen, and china, the collected skeletons of spent lives. The endless variety of textures in the shop oppresses me—warm wood, smooth glass, sharp crystal, slippery silk, stiff linen. Once, as a teenager, goofing around with friends in there, I spilled a Coke on an antique white silk glove and ran, taking the stained glove with me. I can’t help looking, every time I come in here, for its mate. “No, no!” A woman across the shop grabbed her toddler’s jacket with one hand and balanced a china cup in the other. “One moment.” Mrs. Schaffer glided across the room, her body lithe as a sea lion’s, navigating the path between the precarious displays of breakables. With two hands, she rescued the tea cup. “You would like me to wrap this for you.” The woman relented. Sale.

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Mrs. Schaffer returned to the counter and pulled fresh tissue paper from a drawer. “Now, you need something,” she said to me. “Another ride?” “I’m shopping. I need a bell.” “A bell.” She dinged the silver service bell on her own counter and chuckled. I guess all of us merchants have one. “What kind of bell?” “A silver bell that makes a nice sound. A silver bell with a silver tongue.” “You mean a clapper.” She frowned. “I don’t have any. Not at this time.” “I mean, I’d buy it. I’d pay for it.” “Of course. But I know my inventory, and I have none at this time. In summer, perhaps. After the estate sales.” “It’s a Christmas gift for Rafi. That’s what he asked for this morning.” “Ah, so.” Her face relaxed. “He almost missed his train!” “But if you don’t have one—” She turned abruptly and went through the door labeled PRIVATE. Her heavy tread advanced up the stairs, then I could hear her moving around in the apartment overhead. “Excuse me,” a rumpled man with his coat collar popped held up an entire stack of old, cheaply bound books, a matched set. He breathed heavily as if he’d carried them a great distance, not just from the book section in the back. “Are these fifteen dollars for the set or fifteen each?” “It should be written inside the cover.” “Only one says,” he said, opening the marbled fly-leaf. “See, fifteen.” “I think that’s fifteen each,” I said. “That’s insane,” he said. “I wouldn’t pay that for the set.” “Then don’t.” “Look, for my kid. I’ll give you twenty. Twenty for the set of nine.” “I don’t work here, sir.” “I’m in a hurry here. Twenty-five.”

Kate Blackwood

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“Fifty,” I said. “Are you kidding? Look, mold on this cover. Thirty.” “Fifty-five.” He laughed and dropped the books on the counter. “You bargain in the wrong direction, miss.” “I’m not selling them.” “Forget it. My kid wants fucking Treasure Island, he can go to the library.” Mrs. Schaffer emerged with a small box as the man left the shop. She opened the lid, pulled out tissue paper, and started to unwind a cloth. I heard it before I saw it. Even muffled by the cloth, it was a sound of joy, like something alive wanted to get out of the box and sing. “Herman’s bell. Given to him as a baby, at his baptism.” She shook the bell by its silver handle, which was no bigger than her little finger. The sound leaped around the room. The bell was silver, polished as bright as its sound. An inscription I could not read, in a Gothic script, created a pattern like frost around the edge. “You can’t,” I said. “Herman’s bell,” she said. “When he was ill, skinny like a skeleton, he rang so I would come. He rang when he needed help, when I was down here.” She handed it to me as if it burned her fingers. “It is a nice sound,” I said. “Not so nice anymore to me,” she said. “He called for bread but could not eat. He called for water but could not swallow. I have bad memories of this bell.” “It’s perfect,” I said. The metal was cool on my hand and heavier than I expected it to be. I could tell by touching it, it had been made long ago and far away. I rang it. The sound expressed something I wished I could say. She shuddered.

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“It’s perfect for Rafi,” I said. “How much?” “Nothing.” “I’m here to buy.” “Take it.” I hesitated. “Have you told Rafi about this bell?” She looked stern. “Take it please.” The shop door opened, and the rumpled man puffed back inside. “Christ almighty, what kind of a father am I? My kid asks for books for Christmas, I get him books. Fifty for the set.” “I will wrap the bell for you,” Mrs. Schaffer said to me. “And the box.” “Okay, okay, fifty-five.” “Sir, those books are fifteen each, or $135 for the set.” She looked at him sternly as she stuffed a small box with tissue and set the bell inside. “But she said fifty.” “She?” Mrs. Schaffer looked at me. “She is not my employee.” “Thanks for the box,” I said, slipping a twenty onto the counter. I’m sure it was worth more than that. I shook the package to hear it again and slipped out before she could tell him what I really was. Cheapskate, bad mother, thief. In my bag, the bell rang with every step. I imagined the skeletal Herman—he’d been a wiry man even in health—grasping its delicate handle with two bony fingers and, with an effort, ringing it for ice, for soup, for a bedpan. The bell sang on. This was Rafi’s bell now. Its sound meant something entirely new.

Kate Blackwood

9


I

had been stressing about Christmas presents all year. I didn’t make much. My parents, two public school teachers, didn’t either. We could not compete with the Anderson’s riches or Jeremy’s salary and bonuses. That first Christmas after my divorce, we hoped to make up in joy what they could give in video games and gadgets. That is the way my family has always been. Saturday afternoon, I kept snatching the bell from its hiding place in my underwear drawer and ringing it. My heart skipped at the sound. The one thing Raf wanted had been given to me. I called my mom, even though I was going to see her that night, and rang it for her over the phone.

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“Oh, Amy,” she said. It sounded as if she would cry, and I started to choke up, too—we’d done a lot of crying on the phone in the past two years. “Like it’s from another world.” “Actually, it’s from Mrs. Schaffer. But pretty damn close,” I said. The specter of Herman reaching from his sickbed rose in my mind, and I pinched it off. “Do you ever want to say something, but can’t find the words?” “All the time.” “That’s this bell for me.” “I know, honey,” she said. “He wants a bell because it makes the nicest sound. And here it is.” “It’s not the sound,” she said, “but that he wants it.”

Kate Blackwood

11


T

here was a Sunday evening train, but I drove to Syracuse to pick Rafi up that week. Jeremy came to the door in his socks and Dartmouth sweat pants. Ivy League sweats: a contradiction that fits Jeremy perfectly. His hair stuck up on one side. A smile spread over his dark features as he opened the door for me. My first glimpse of him in weeks: it almost erases time. “You didn’t have to drive out,” he said. “I wanted to.” “Well, it gave us more time. Game’s almost over.” He turned and yelled up the stairs, “We beat those cheeseheads yet?” “Come up! Hurry! Come up!” Rafi’s voice was almost a shriek. Jeremy leaped back up the stairs he had come down so slowly. Their voices together, bass and shrill treble, screamed over the play. “Fumble!” “It’s ours! It’s ours!” The foyer smelled like pizza. I knocked some snow off my boot onto the dirty mat. “Okay, tiger,” said Jeremy, “time to go.” “But the game’s not over.” “We know we’re going to win, right? We’ve got it in the bag.” “But anything can happen.” Jeremy’s head appeared over the railing. “Just a few more minutes. You want to come up?” I wanted to. I wanted to fit the three last puzzle pieces together again. Three left out of a thousand that had been broken apart and scattered. “You already got an extra two hours.” “Five minutes, Amy. Jesus.” “No.” His face withdrew, leaving its sketch in my memory: pronounced cheek bones, clean black brows, eyes that let me know there was something going on inside I couldn’t predict. A tall, thin rope of potential energy. I held onto the railing to keep myself in public space.

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“Sorry, tiger,” I heard him say. “This football game has been brought to you by the letters F and U.” Rafi whined. I braced myself. He returns to me Sunday evenings cranky, over-stimulated, and sugar low. In the vestibule, Jeremy knelt down and cupped his hands behind Rafi’s head. “Merry Christmas, okay? I don’t get to see you, but I’ll call you.” He didn’t look at me as he walked back up the stairs. He’d been working out, I could tell despite the sweats. Or maybe because of the sweats. The crowd on the television rejoiced. I pulled Rafi’s hat over his hair, which was matted like his dad’s. “Buckle up,” I said as I pulled away from the curb. “Did you have fun?” “Yeah.” Meaning, Jeremy didn’t make him do homework, floss, or play outside. “What did you do?” “Stuff.” Meaning, lay on the floor playing his portable video game system while Jeremy watched football. “Did your grandma and pop-pop come to see you?” God. Pop-pop. I can barely say it. “Oh yeah.” The fog cleared from Rafi’s head for a moment. “They gave me a DSi. Them and Dad.” “Terrific. Now you can play both video games at once.” “Mom, that’s dumb.” “So is having both a Playstation Portable and a Nintendo.” “The DSi is better,” he said. He slumped in his seat until the seat belt came up to his ears. Then he bolted up straight. “Wanna see?” “Hell no,” I said, but then relented. It is so hard to remember Rafi is not one of them when I can see their fingerprints all over him. “I mean, no thanks. You can play it at your dad’s.” “But I brought it.” This eagerly, proudly. “You didn’t.”

Kate Blackwood

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“I did.” This, defiantly. “It’s here in my backpack.” “Raphael, did you sneak it out?” “Dad said I could.” “Jeremy.” I pressed my forehead to the steering wheel. “He said he didn’t want me to be bored on Christmas.” “He didn’t want you to be what on Christmas?” “B-O-R-D.” I stomped on the brakes. Rafi’s head bobbed with the force. “Then I’ll take you back. You and your DSi can spend Christmas at your dad’s.” “Good.” I did a U-turn, spraying slush and inviting some angry honks. Rafi suddenly looked frightened. “No Christmas tree, no cookies, no more presents,” I said. “Sounds like you got enough presents from him and his parents.” Rafi whined, a sound of pain he could not put into words. I felt the same way. We pulled around the corner in time to see Jeremy bound down the steps and swing into his Audi at the curb. The sweats were gone, replaced by jeans and his leather jacket. I pulled into a space at the curb behind an SUV. “Where’s he going?” Rafi said. “Out.” Was he seeing someone? I was not supposed to care. “He has his life without us.” “Without us?” “Honey, he doesn’t wait around all week while you’re gone.” I got the car moving again and turned left at the corner when Jeremy turned right toward Armory Square. Rafi craned his neck to see the taillights. The streetlights washed over his little face in a pattern. “Do you wait around while I’m gone?” he said. “I do,” I said, and I meant it.

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“You hurt my neck when you stopped like that.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I’m sorry, baby.” I reached out, but he flinched. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He was quiet the rest of the drive, almost two hours. I turned into our driveway as gently as I could, but Raf made sure his head bobbed all over as the car bounced up the steep curb and through the pothole our landlord refuses to fix. We rent a little place above the garage of a big old Victorian downtown. I walk to work, a block away, and Rafi walks to school, just across the park. I’m proud of our place. “My neck still hurts,” said Rafi. “I’m sorry. But you know the rule.” “The rule is your house sucks.” I stomped the brake again, in our parking spot. I breathed deeply. “The rule is no video player at my house.” “You’re starting to drive like Dad,” he said. I saw only white for a second, as if the porchlight had exploded. “How’s that?” “Angry.” “Give me your backpack.” He crossed his arms, but I saw a crack in his defiance. He was testing me. “Your backpack, sir.” He handed it over. It’s blue with a garish red Mario leaping across the front, a gift from Grandma Anderson. I despise it. I unzipped the bulging front pocket and removed the black case stamped with the letters DSi. “I’ll give it back when you go back to your dad’s.” “That’s a whole week.” “Raphael, you sound like a child.” I got out of the car. A few seconds later, I heard his car door slam and his boots crunch through the snow after me. “I am a child,” he said.

Kate Blackwood

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I opened the door and let him run ahead, up the bare steps. He pulled his duffel bag after him. It hadn’t occurred to him to stick it to me by leaving his bag in the car for me to fetch later. He hasn’t learned all his dad’s tricks yet. After climbing a few steps, he turned around. We stood eye to eye. Those big, innocent eyes. The anger was gone from them, replaced by a need for my acceptance. “You’re right,” I said. “You are a child.” He scampered ahead and crashed through the door into our kitchen. He dumped his duffel on the floor and went hunting for the cat. I stowed the DSi case on a high shelf, between the flour and baking soda. I listened to Rafi call the cat in his little voice. “Jimmy! Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy!” Rafi’s anger lifted so easily. Mine did not. I pushed the video game behind the flour. “Let’s watch my whales before bed,” I said as if nothing had happened. “I don’t wanna watch whales.” His complaint proceeded him out of his bedroom. “Let’s watch Tom and Jerry.” “One Curious George episode and then whales.” “One Tom and Jerry and then whales.” He knows how to bargain. “Sold,” I said, handing him his duffel. “Pajamas. I’ll make hot chocolate. Do you want toast?” “With cinnamon!” He was back on my program now. “With cinnamon. Then Ben and Jerry.” He giggled. “Tom and Jerry.” “Right. Then my whales. You always change your mind about my whales.” I gave him his hot chocolate and toast. “Whipped cream!” he said.

Kate Blackwood

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“Merry early Christmas. Why don’t we skip right to my whales?” He curled against me on the couch as my laptop computer came to life on the coffee table. I felt him sigh. “Okay.” “Really?” “Yeah. I like whales.” His little body warmed my legs, and the electric heat ticked reassuringly from the baseboard. I put my arm around him, not sure which I wanted more—to protect him or to comfort myself. On the screen before us, small fish clustered around an ugly shark, eating fungus off its flanks. “I love orca whales,” Rafi whispered. “Those aren’t orcas, Raf.” “I know. But orcas eat seals.” It seemed the right moment to pry a little more eight-year-old logic out of him. “Why do you want a bell for Christmas?” I said. He turned to face me, and the impishness flashed behind his eyelashes like a piranha through a stand of river weeds. “So I can ring it,” he said, “and you come to bring me more toast.” I felt a chill. “What about the nicest sound?” He turned back to the screen and pushed his back against my knees. “I made that up.” Rafi had not made it up, I was sure. I struggle to understand my son, but I know when he looks me in the eye and says, “I want a bell,” he means he wants a bell. It was such a simple wish, from such a joyful, childlike heart. I bounced my knee so Rafi’s head bobbed. “What?” he turned around and glowered at me. “I’m watching.” “Did something bad happen at your dad’s?” “No, it was good. He gave me a DSi. That’s what I really want.” He turned back to the screen.

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Now huge tuna were lunging through a spinning column of smaller fish. “Look, an underwater tornado,” I said. He got off the couch. “I’m bored. Can I go to bed?” “You’ve got another half hour,” I said. It was seven-thirty. “Can I play my game?” “Honey, you know the answer.” “Special for Christmas?” He smiled and actually batted his lashes. “Maybe on Christmas.” “Tomorrow.” “Christmas Eve.” “Christmas Eve eve.” “You stinker,” I said. “Bed.” “But it’s early.” “You asked for it.” “Aww.” And the whining started up like a machine fueled by soda and the green and red M&Ms Grandma Anderson leaves in sterling silver dishes all over her house this time of year. Rafi had probably eaten a pound of them that morning. He could use the extra sleep. “School tomorrow,” I said. “Last two days.” The whine increased. “Oh, look. I was wrong,” I said, pointing to my grandmother’s antique clock I keep on my bookshelf. It had stopped. “Nine . . . thirty,” he said. “Really?” “Nine thirty-two. Yes.” “No wonder I’m so sleepy.” He takes after his father in a good way; turn him away from the source of excitement, and he chills out immediately. It took ten minutes and not even half a Curious George book to get him to sleep. I gently moved his head from my lap to his pillow, and he didn’t stir.

Kate Blackwood

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I tried to read. I stared at the colored lights on the half-sized Christmas tree we’d decorated with paper snowflakes, until the colors blurred and my eyes stung. I took the DSi out from behind the flour canister. The ON switch was easy enough to find. I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the sound, so I endured a few attempts at steering Mario through his perpetual quest with a faint pinging and electronic tinkle playing in my ears. Any moment, Rafi would wake up and, drawn by that sixth sense boys have for electronics, rush into the room. But I couldn’t stop playing. I suck at video games. I stumbled through death after death, level after level, unable to put it down. It was not fun; I felt drugged. I got up when the batteries died. The antique clock said nine thirty-two. My watch said two fifteen. I said, “Shit.” My alarm would go off at four.

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T

he faint jazzy tune of the video game invaded my sleep. I tried to shake it out of my dreams, but it would not go. It led me to the living room. The top of Rafi’s head stuck up above the couch, hair spiky, the glowing game in his hands. The little figure raced across the screen. Jeremy used to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to play his Wii, leaving no evidence except the vague impression of him getting up in the night and not coming back. “At least turn off the sound,” I said. Rafi whipped the game under a pillow. “Too late, tiger. Where did you find that?” “On the couch. It was out of battery.” “What am I going to do with you?” It would be ridiculous to put him back to bed for one more hour. “Okay, dude. Turn over the game. You’re coming to work with me.” “I’m sleepy.” “You won’t be for long. I need your help kneading the bread.”

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R

afi slumped atop a fifty-pound flour sack while I moved from one industrial-sized mixer to the next, measuring in the flour. The floorto-ceiling oven was already fired up, baking the rolls and “Denny’s Daily” multi-grain that Denny had set to rise just before midnight, so it would be warm and ready for customers when he opened at six thirty. Loaves of bread are like infants, little bundles set to a schedule of roundthe-clock care. I have fit my son precisely into this schedule—on a normal day, waking him at 6:30 during the break while the dough rises. When one thing goes wrong, the whole day goes wrong. The day-old cinnamon roll I’d found for his breakfast dangled, un-tasted, in his hand. He kicked his heels against the flour sack, sending little puffs of white into the air. “What do you want?” “My DSi back.” I had tucked it into my bag on the way out the door. I watched the tiny blizzard of flour accumulating near his feet, a mess I would have to sweep up. I was tempted to give it to him, let his brain go to mush at five in the morning. At least he would be quiet and contented. “Come help me lift this bowl, Raf,” I said. “This is cinnamon bread at the very beginning of its life cycle. It will grow and change throughout the day. I’ll bring you a loaf when you get out of school. The evolution of raisin bread: cinnamon toast!” “I don’t want to.” “I want you to. Come on, baby, I need your help here.” The bowl weighs about twenty pounds itself, not counting the huge lump of developing gluten inside. I heft these things myself every morning (who needs to go to the gym?), but the thought of a little assistance was nice. “I need your muscles.” One foot kicked, then the other. Two last puffs of flour sifted to the floor, and he slid off his perch. Together, we carried the bowl to the big table and rolled the dough out.

Kate Blackwood

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“Wash your hands,” I said, kicking a milk crate over to the table. “I’ll show you how to knead.” “I don’t want to.” “I don’t want to, either.” He looked at me. “You don’t?” “There are about a dozen things I’d rather be doing right now.” I cut the mother lump into loaf-sized pieces, coated each with flour and started to fold and press the first. “Like what?” Rafi’s hands started pummeling a second loaf. “Like go back to sleep, for starters. Like read. Like write those articles like I used to.” “Why do you do it then?” “To make money so we can rent an apartment and feed ourselves. So I can buy you Christmas presents.” He punched in silence for a minute. It was cute; he was trying to copy me, but his clumsy hands could not fold and press like they needed to. He left a bunch of little dents all over the dough. I decided that would be the loaf I brought home to him. I set my first aside and started on a second. “Dad doesn’t do what he doesn’t have to.” He was drawing the strings of the truth tighter and tighter around me. I took it out on the dough. “Your dad likes his job.” “Why don’t you like your job?” “Would you want to do this before breakfast every morning?” I held up my gluten-caked hands. “Why don’t you do what you want?” I needed to knead for a minute before answering. “I did for a while. Then I was interrupted.” “By what?” “By you.” He punched the dough, and I felt his fists in my gut, the way I had once felt them inside me, each strike reminding me my life wasn’t my own

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anymore. The way I had once—and only once—felt his father’s fist—one fist. The action that had changed everything. I ached to take those words back. We both punched away in silence. “What does interrupted mean?” “A pause. A change of plans.” He actually smiled. I dropped my entire weight on the loaf until my feet lifted off the floor and my hand pressed through the dough and felt the hardness of the table. “I changed your plan,” he said. “See how strong you are?” He held up his lumpy loaf with both hands. It looked like the potato Charlie Brown pulls from his Trick-or-Treat sack. “That’s good,” I said. “Onto the rising rack she goes with the rest of them.” “Can I play my game now?” “You little dealer!” “You interrupted my game.” “You interrupted my morning.” “You interrupted my time with Dad yesterday.” “Oh, no. I actually gave him—” I started to argue, but that would be useless. “Okay, Christmas Eve you can have it back.” “Tomorrow.” “Christmas Eve eve.” “Tonight.” “You’re bargaining in the wrong direction, buddy,” I said. “Wash your hands.” I walked him to school across the park. The sky was just starting to lighten over the stand of tall pines behind the elementary school. I dropped him off with a hug in the cafeteria, where the subsidized breakfast kids hunched over trays and milk cartons. We qualify for the free

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meal, but Rafi seldom needs it. “Don’t eat too much Christmas candy today,” I said. “Don’t worry. I will.” Back at the bakery, I pulled the video game case from my bag. Little Mario called to me from inside. The temptation to slip in a few minutes of play before my boss got in was almost as appealing as the thought of clearing those digital hurdles and killing those digital monsters. I unzipped the case but hesitated. I didn’t want to get flour in the game, and I did want to get flour in the game, to ruin Jeremy’s expensive, absorbing present. A little dough in the keys, a little cinnamon in the hard drive, and it would stay dark for the rest of the week. Jeremy would be pissed. And Rafi would be devastated. I zipped the game back up, clean and safe.

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R

afi’s cinnamon raisin bread turned out better than I had expected, a little misshapen but crusty on the outside and light inside. He is surprisingly good with his hands. “Did I bake this?” he said the next afternoon, eyes large behind his buttered, sugared slice. School had just got out for the break. My mom, his Grandma Almond, was on her way over to take him shopping so I could wrap presents. “No, silly,” I said. “The oven did.” There wasn’t much to wrap, just the bell. It chimed as I slid it into its box, folded the wrapping paper just right, and trussed it up in ribbon and tags and tinsel. My phone rang as I attached the tag. It was Jeremy. “Where is he?” he said as soon as he heard my voice. “You said you’d call on Christmas. He’s not expecting anything else.” “I miss him, Amy. I just want to talk to him.” “You do not.” “What the hell, Amy?” “You don’t miss him. You want to win.” “He’s my kid. Of course, I miss him.” “We saw you Sunday, out the door the minute he was gone.” “I needed to blow off steam, ok? I spent two days in that little apartment with my parents and an eight-year-old.” “That’s your fault.” “You moved out, Amy.”


“Can you imagine me staying?” All the air in the room seemed to suck into the phone. “I don’t want my son to hate me, too,” he said after a pause. “Let’s not get into it—” “He wanted a Nintendo, so I got him a Nintendo.” “You didn’t have to send it with him.” “He did that all on his own. Sneaked it into his bag.” “Wonder who he learned that from.” Instead of getting mad like I wanted him to, Jeremy laughed. “Oh, loosen up. Let him play. You don’t want him to be bored.” “That’s the word he used. Bored.” “Maybe he is.” “And you called to cheer him up.” There was another silence, and I could tell I was finally getting to him. “I called because I want to talk to my kid.” “That game has invaded the space I have with him.” “I told you, he sneaked it out.” “I don’t believe you.” “Believe what you want. Be angry at me.” “I’m not.” “Oh, you are. But don’t take it out on him.” “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s at his grandmother’s.” “Can I talk to him later?” “On Christmas,” I said. “You can’t stop me from calling,” he said and hung up. “You can’t stop me from turning off my phone.” I slammed my underwear drawer. Inside, the bell rang from the jolt. I took it out again, undid all the wrapping, dug through Mrs. Schaffer’s copious tissue paper, and held the bell in my hand. The script around the edge glistened like frost in the red evening light that fell across my bed. I could almost feel it vibrating. What eight-year-old would want a bell?

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My eight-year-old, that’s who. I could see his face peering up at me over the bakery counter and the seriousness in his eyes. He had meant what he said. I wrapped the bell’s silver tongue with tissue then with wrapping paper then with tape and re-wrapped the box. Then I went out for a run. The sky was clear. The low sun caught crystals in the snow, and the air tasted like sparkling water. I felt strong. One time Jeremy hit me—I have to keep telling myself this. We were both a little drunk, a little out of our heads. It did not even hurt that much, a fist to the face, and it did not leave much of a mark. But it redirected my thinking. It told me about him. Something had been dancing around the edges of my awareness since I met him, but I had chosen to ignore it until I no longer could. Only the two of us know. Only the two of us know, also, that I still hold this card in my hand. When we set the terms of custody, I could have cut him off altogether, but chose not to. I figure anything I extend to him is icing on the cake. The fact that he can even speak to Rafi is a gift. I ran defiantly for a mile, fueled by self-assurance. But then I started worrying: what if Rafi and my mom got back and I wasn’t there? Of course, my mom has a key, but—I stopped in the crunchy snow. I still have to show up. I turned around right there and ran back home. I left the apartment door cracked open while I showered.

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T

he sun set, and my room grew cold. I lay down for a nap but could not sleep. I reached for a book but could not read. Suddenly, I thought: What if Rafi doesn’t come back? My mother is a careful driver, but an accident can happen to anyone. How do I know Jeremy is not out there himself, lurking in his Audi, ready to intercept my son from his grandparents and drive off when I’m not looking? I imagined it: Jeremy, pulling to the curb of the Target store in his Audi. My parents, oblivious with their shopping cart, go on ahead. The automatic window comes down silently, reflecting the red lights of the store. “Hey, tiger.” “Dad! Why are you here?” “I just wanted to say hi, Rafi. I don’t want you to be bored.” “I am bored.” “Why don’t we go back to my place, watch some TV, play your video game.” “Yeah!” “Then get in.” Rafi pauses. “What?” “I can’t.” “Why not, Tiger? We’ll have fun. You can play as much DSi as you want.” “But Mom has my DSi in her bag.” I sat up and opened my eyes, and the vision, half fantasy and half dream, evaporated. The video game was still in my bag, dusted with flour.

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avoid the shopping mall at the newer end of town, especially the week before Christmas. The parking lot was like a video game as I navigated through; I’d lose a life, I thought, for every mini-van I hit before I found a parking space. Inside, I confronted a wall of video games, amazed at the variety of systems and the variety of games for each system. My brother, Greg, and I had shared a little gray Game Boy way back when, but after a few weeks of fighting over Tetris, I had lost interest and let Greg take it over. “Can I help you find anything?” The young man wore a red collared shirt, the store’s uniform, and tucked his hair behind his ears. “You look like an expert,” I said. “I’m not bad.” “Help me find my son’s love.” “Love?” “Loyalty, devotion, affection.” “You mean, like the game he’ll love.” “The game he’ll love more than Super Mario.” “That’s last year’s.” “I thought so. I need the game he will love more than that one.” The employee—CHRIS, his name tag said—straightened up, and his hair slipped from behind his ears, and he scraped it back again. He looked a little like a zoo animal, out of his natural environment, dressed up in clothes he would not wear on his own and made to perform tricks for a paycheck. He wanted to play these games, not sell them. “If he likes Super Mario—” “—He begs for it.” “—he’ll love this one.” He held up a box. On the box, Mario reached toward a girl in the clutches of a gorilla wearing a tie. “Just out last month.” “He’ll love it?” “It’s frickin’ addictive.” The boy’s face became animated.

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“Addiction isn’t love.” “I just know it’s a wicked great game.” “Will he love me for getting it for him?” “Absolutely.” “You have a future in this,” I said. I paid with the cash I had intended for the oranges and special chocolates I like to put in his stocking, and the bottle of wine for my parents, and the guitar stand for my brother. This game had interrupted my Christmas. While I stowed the DSi back up in the baking cupboard, I wondered who had bought the first video game for Chris, and whether it was to shut him up or buy his affection. Had this grown boy ever wanted something, like my son did, because it made the nicest sound?

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afi’s two boxes looked the same, the bell and the bargaining chip, once they were both wrapped, when I placed them side by side in my underwear drawer. For good measure, I closed my eyes and stirred the boxes around, letting them tumble over and over with my bras until I no longer knew which was which. Rafi burst in so fast my hands were still in the drawer. “Whatcha doin’!” I turned and slammed the drawer—accidentally—with my whole weight. “Reorganizing my underwear drawer.” “Ew.” “What else am I going to do when you’re not around?” “Something funner than that.” He ran out of my room as fast as he’d come in. “More fun,” I shouted after him. I could hear my mother, in the kitchen, starting the macaroni and cheese, my father tuning the radio to bluegrass and asking Rafi to help him set the table. With a small shock, I mentally searched the cupboards, then relaxed. Neither mac and cheese nor setting the table required flour. Late that night, after dinner had been cleared and A Christmas Carol watched—the four of us clustered around my laptop screen—and after my parents had departed and Rafi had been put to bed, a noise scratched the surface of my sleep. Dimly aware of the line between dream and real life, I was afraid not of an intruder but of falling objects. The video game fallen off the high shelf, the wrapped presents tumbled out of the drawer. The last card in my hand against Jeremy—our secret—fluttered to the floor where everyone could see it, where it no longer had any power. I opened my eyes and saw nothing, and felt only the presence of my own fear. Then sleep took me back.

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do not know how long it was, but the next noise woke me fully. It was the distinct sound of the video game springing to life. Ding! I sat up. “Fuck.” My underwear drawer was open a crack. In the next room, a few bars of melody spilled out, surprisingly loud for a tiny black box, then faded abruptly as the phantom player fumbled for the volume. Rafi sat crossed-legged on the floor, face lit by the small square of the game and the fluorescent light pouring, bluish, from the kitchen, like spilled skim milk. He was surrounded by shreds of wrapping paper, ribbon, tinsel, tag, plastic, cardboard, and the game’s black carrying case. Beyond, in the kitchen, the flour bag had been knocked off the shelf and sat, fump, top-down on the tile. A chair stood against the counter. His hair was matted over to the side, one pajama leg was hiked up over his knee, and he stared up at me, mouth open, shocked and defensive. “You said fuck.” “Oh God. I wasn’t talking to you.” “Then who?” “How do you even know that word?” He didn’t answer. The specter of Jeremy and his own late-night video game binges and his football watching antics and his car-bound cursing floated into the room between us. I think Rafi saw him, too. He ducked his head, un-paused the game, and started pushing buttons. “You found your DSi,” I said. “And your Christmas present.” The force of his play rocked his small body. “The guy at the store said it was the best.” He didn’t respond. I forced myself to stay calm. “Do you like it?” He nodded without looking up. “I have another present for you, Rafi.” He looked up, his eyes bright and dazed. “But it’s not Christmas yet.”

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“That didn’t stop you from finding that one.” He shrugged and tried to plunge back into the world of the game, but I closed my hand over the small box and gently pulled it away. He whined but let go. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s not Christmas yet. When you don’t wait, even if you know what you’re getting, it makes it less special.” He pulled his fists into the sleeves of his Batman shirt and crossed his arms over the yellow crest. “I already got my good presents,” he said. “Not this one.” I stood and strode to my room, taking the game with me as a hostage. Still on pause, its light showed me the second box in the drawer, then I shut the game inside. A faint green glow showed through the crack. “Open this.” I held the box out. A look of joy crossed his face. “Another?” he said. “You wanted this one.” My excitement grew with his. I couldn’t help it. This is one of the mysteries of motherhood. Before, I was pretty much like everyone else. Giving gifts was fun but getting them was better, hands down. Now, the joy of giving my son a gift that gives him joy is like nothing else. I can honestly say I don’t care if I get another gift again from anyone as long as I can make Rafi as happy as he looked right then, tearing into his second present. He opened the box and, somewhat puzzled, pulled out fistfuls of tissue.


I did not quite understand the look of intensity with which he grasped the bell and pulled out the wrapping which muted the clapper until the bell sailed across the room, hit the bookshelf, and fell to the floor with a tinny thunk. One last sheet of tissue, set free by Rafi’s throw, drifted to the floor, and he looked at an object in his hand. He had torn out the bell’s silver tongue.

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I could not speak. I could not move. But then I collected my wits, shuffled through the debris on the floor, and went back to my room. I pulled the covers over my head and curled with the cold wall against my back. The sound of the broken bell had hurt me more than anything Jeremy had done. I don’t know how long I was in there—maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour. But in the dark and warmth of my bed, something slipped away from me, and I let it go. For the first time since Rafi was born—no, for the first time since I attached myself to Jeremy—I felt cut loose, cut free, a single entity in the world. I could give Jeremy full custody. I could move away—maybe to another state. I could pick up my real work, science writing, where I had left it, no matter what it took or where it took me. Would I do it all? Not necessarily. But in my bed, in a ball, I was ready to start again—finally. Anything was possible. It was impossible, of course, for me to hear the bell. My son had torn it apart—it should not be making noise. But there it was, the living sound I had heard in Mrs. Schaffer’s shop. Only the sound was different now. The tone was still joyful, but muted. The bell rang again. It sounded hurt, but at least it was sounding. My door squeaked open, and soft footsteps came into my room. The covers lifted, letting in a waft of cold air, then a small body curled against mine. I could feel the tacky Batman crest on his shirt as I wrapped my arms around him. We lay silent, for how long I don’t know, but I had a feeling it would be the last time I would hold my son like that. I thought he had drifted off, but then his head shifted. “I tried to fix it,” he said. His voice was muffled, facing away from me.

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“I tried, too,” I started, but the magnitude of broken things overwhelmed me. “Some things can’t be fixed, baby. I’m sorry.” “You can still hear it,” he said. “You can,” I said. “I think you made it better.”

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KATE BLACKWOOD worked as a journalist in the Detroit area before earning an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her stories and the occasional poem have appeared in Red Line Blues, The Metamer Quarterly, and elsewhere. Kate lives in Ithaca, New York, where she works as a writer and web editor for Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences. She is a board member of Ithaca City of Asylum, a project that helps writers whose voices are threatened and whose lives are in danger because of political conflict. Blackwood writes that the seed of “Silver Tongue” was planted in her mind when a woman about her age told her that her son asked for a bell for Christmas: “The woman was amused but also touched by the request, which seemed untainted in a way—a message straight from son to young mother with nothing else in the way. When this family went through a split, I hurt for them—and started thinking about the things that strain a mother’s bond with her child. Divorce, certainly, but also her son getting older and more independent, her own pain and shortcomings, and the forces of the world—like consumer culture. How does the bond remain with all these pressures working on it?”


Iron Horse Literary Review would like to thank its supporters, without whose generous help we could not publish Iron Horse successfully. In particular, we would like to thank our benefactors and equestrian donors. If you would like to join our network of friends, please contact us at ihlr.mail@gmail.com for information on the various levels of support. Benefactors ($300) Wendell Aycock Lon and Carol Baugh Beverly and George Cox Sam Dragga Madonne Miner Charles and Patricia Patterson Gordon Weaver Equestrian ($3,000 and above) TTU English Department, Chair Brian Still TTU College of Arts & Sciences, Dean Michael San Franciso TTU Graduate School, Dean Mark Sheridan TTU Provost’s Office, Provost Michael Galyean TTU President’s Office, President Lawrence Schovanec